This year for the first time, I printed off a reading challenge to help push my reading in new directions. While I’m not following it slavishly, I do get excited when I read something that checks a box or more on the list. One of the suggestions was to read a graphic memoir written and illustrated by the same person, and Thi Bui’s haunting, beautiful The Best We Could Do fit the bill perfectly.
Thi’s graphic novel tells the story of her family’s history, from her parents’ very different upbringings and paths to each other to her family’s escape from Vietnam right before the fall of Saigon when Thi was small. Their stories are filtered through Thi’s own lens as an adult American, and through the book she struggles to reconcile her own Americanness with her parents’ successes and struggles as immigrants and parents, especially in light of her own new motherhood.
I read this book in a single sitting and I thought a lot about it after I finished, but now, even months later, I still don’t really know how to talk about it. It’s beautiful, open, honest, sad, happy, every emotion you can think of. The warm oranges, yellows, and blues that dominate Thi’s evocative illustrations serve as a connecting thread between these very different periods in her and her parents lives, and you can tell the novel was a very personal project for her. Not just because it’s her memoir but because of why she wrote it and what she works through in the creation of it. The book is a way for her to understand her past, present, and future and to process her love for and resentment of her parents’ decidedly non-American attitudes. There is a moment that beautifully encapsulates this when she shares her hurt and frustration but also understanding when her mother would tell Thi’s white husband all about their family history, even in front of her, but refuse to talk about it with Thi herself for a long time. Thi talks about how writing the novel was a decade long process of catharsis, and not only she but we are better for it.
Like Exit West, The Best We Could Do is a story of movement, loss, and love, but it’s not just an immigration story. It asks the question, what happens as life re-balances and starts anew? And it again reminds us that despite different experiences, people are people. Even if you think that you’re not one for graphic novels, I highly encourage you to check this one out.